What a difference a couple of years makes.
Remember 1999? That was the year media honchos Tina Brown and Ron Galotti contracted with indie film maestros Harvey and Bob Weinstein to form Talk Media. Launched at an exclusive—but enormous—party at no less grand a venue than the Statue of Liberty, Talk Media was slated to become the apotheosis of synergy. It was going to publish a magazine and turn magazine articles into films. It was going to change the world of entertainment.
Oh, and it was also going to have a book division: Talk Miramax Books.
Actually, Miramax, the film company, already had a book division, but it was a movie tie-in kind of thing. But the company wanted to spread the synergy, so they hired a president for their book business, Jonathan Burnham.
"Who?" was what we said.
A 40ish Brit who'd run imprints in the U.K. and had been working for a few months at Viking, Burnham was virtually unknown on this side of the pond. But that was the way it was meant to be. Tina Brown, after all, was the star, the diva, the creative brains behind the operation. Burnham was to be, at best, her consort. As for Talk Miramax Books: Well, we'd see.
And see we did. We saw several high-profile disappointments—Simon Schama's A History of Britain, for example, and the much-reviewed but little-sold Creating a Life by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. We saw Talk magazine fold. We saw Tina Brown depart.
But then we saw Burnham anew, heading the newly named Miramax Books. Rather amazingly, the imprint began doing books that actually sold. Books like Jerri Nielsen's Ice Bound, a true-life story of a doctor at the South Pole who performed her own breast cancer surgery, and survived. (The book was acquired and edited by nonfiction seer, Susan Mercandetti, who last month jumped to Random House.) And Rudy Guiliani's Leadership, which had been the punch line of a publishing joke in early 2001 after Burnham paid $3 million for two books by a mayor known only in New York. That was before the world changed and America found its mayor—complete with a bestselling book. No more jokes. Only more savvy publishing: Queen Noor's Leap of Faith, Madeleine Albright's Madam Secretary, Tim Russert's Big Russ and Me, Plum Sykes's Bergdorf Blondes and even Kristin Gore's Sammy's Hill.
In less than two years, Miramax had become the little house (with the deep pockets and major celebrity connections) that could. And Burnham had become a star.
So the announcement this week that Miramax Books is all but dead, while not surprising, was a little sad—and not just for authors like the New York Post's Paula Froelich, whose cheeky, punchy guide to celebrity called It, is due to be published by the house next month. It's sad because Miramax Books, after some valiant struggling and some changing of the guard, found its voice as a publisher—no easy feat. Burnham and his staff—the remaining members of which, Burnham hopes, will find places within Hyperion—might not have published great art, but they knew what their strengths were and they managed to make the business work. And that is an all too infrequent occurrence in today's publishing world.
Burnham, of course, is headed to HarperCollins, where he'll be publisher of the 100-odd books that come out of the flagship imprint every year. The Weinstein brothers, once their contracts with Disney are finally severed, will surely go on to create another movie company—and insiders are still saying we shouldn't rule out the possibility of a book division, someday.
But Miramax Books itself is over, a footnote in book history, destined to be lined up next to other bygone imprints in that great publishing cemetery in the sky. Say hello to Horace Liveright.
We all knew it was coming, but that doesn't make its demise any less shocking.
Like its founders, Miramax was, for better and worse, sui generis, born of its time. For a short while it was, in Tina Brown—speak—veddy hot, hot, hot.